Of all the Merit System Principles that govern federal civilian employees, none is as broad and all-encompassing as the fifth one that simply states, “The Federal work force should be used efficiently and effectively.”
What this principal means for federal civilian employees is embodied in the sixth Merit System Principle, which contains more detail and has a direct bearing on the hiring and firing of federal employees. This is also where the federal government gets its power to hold federal employees accountable for their job performance.
Here’s a closer look at what this principal means to you and your career.
The Merit System Principles represent the federal government’s self-imposed code in its attempt to be a model employer. These principles govern all aspects of a federal civilian employee’s career.
Under the Merit System Principles, job performance matters, forming the basis for how an employee is judged, promoted or even fired:
“Employees should be retained on the basis of the adequacy of their performance, inadequate performance should be corrected, and employees should be separated who cannot or will not improve their performance to meet required standards.”
Don’t mistake the phrase “adequacy of their performance” to mean that the federal government is content with a merely adequate job performance. As is always the case with the federal employment code, the devil is in the details. What matters most is how “adequate” and, even more importantly, “inadequate” job performance are defined in a particular case. That can determine the trajectory of a federal career.
The precise definition can be as detailed and specific as the many jobs and positions in the federal government.
Should your federal manager believe your job performance to be inadequate, the formal notification can come in the form of an “adverse action,” as federal employment disciplinary matters are known.
In previous articles we’ve talked about the complex process governing discipline, including due-process channels for employees who appeal actions and sanctions.
Suffice it to say that no federal employee facing discipline, including for alleged inadequate job performance, should navigate this process alone. Nothing less than your career is at stake.
A hand up
As an employer, the federal government is also committed to the success of its workers.
The seventh Merit System Principle codifies this goal, as follows:
“Employees should be provided effective education and training in cases in which such education and training would result in better organizational and individual performance.”
In this sense, the Merit System Principles actually assist federal employees to achieve so they merit further advancement, raises and promotions down the line. At its best, this becomes a virtuous cycle that can lead to long and fulfilling federal careers. Best of all, it’s mandated in federal law.
As a federal employee, it’s in your best interest to avail yourself of the training and education that is offered.
The Merit System Principles are at their most unequivocal when stating what the federal government won’t tolerate. In doing so, the principles grant federal employees strong protections and issue stern warnings against the sometimes arbitrary, capricious and even vindictive nature of workplace politics.
Simply put, this Merit System Principle outlaws all forms of on-the-job favoritism, political influence, payback or revenge. Once again, federal employees must know both their rights and their duties.
The Merit System Principles state that employees “should be protected against arbitrary action, personal favoritism, or coercion for partisan political purposes.”
In turn, federal employees are “prohibited from using their official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election or a nomination for election.”
Because, above all, the federal workplace is no place for partisan politics.
We can handle the truth
In government, sunlight often proves the best disinfectant when things go wrong. The Merit System Principles protect federal civilian employees for telling hard truths about governmental problems:
“Employees should be protected against reprisal for the lawful disclosure of information which the employees reasonably believe evidences a violation of any law, rule, or regulation, or mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.”
From the nine Merit System Principles flow the civil service protections to which federal civil servants are entitled, including the protections afforded by the Prohibited Personnel Practices, which mirror these principles and were the subject of a previous article.
Rest assured you have many rights as a federal employee. There are strong legal remedies should your federal manager violate your rights by breaching these principals and protections. These remedies and avenues of appeal rest with the many federal employment laws, protections and merit principles embedded in the federal employment system.
But it is up to you to make them work.
Focusing my practice on civil litigation, employment law and unemployment compensation, I’ve represented (and currently represent) many federal employees in my almost 30 years in practice. From my experience I can say one thing with absolute certainty: Don’t go up against the federal government alone. Retain a well-experienced attorney with a strong working knowledge of the federal system along with all aspects of employment law.
It’s your federal career. Protect it.